North East Insurgency

October 27, 2021 Lakshmi Priya Panicker


Traditional challenges to internal security have posed a threat to every nation in the world, internal security concerns are compounded by several factors that also impairs regional and international. India’s security challenges have evolved through the years, since its independence it has dealt with complex internal security concerns that have plagued its strategic environment.

One such region is North East India (NEI). Today, NEI consists of 8 states, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim and Tripura. The region of NEI borders several countries, namely Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal and Myanmar. India’s connection to NEI is through a narrow stretch, Siliguri Corridor or Chicken’s Neck, due to its precarious positioning. The NEI region is a complex amalgamation of identities, religions and community sentiment which has made creating a cohesive policy for its governance harder 1.

NEI is an ethnically diverse region of India, it consists of over 150 tribal communities, totalling 12 per cent of India’s total tribal populations2. Each tribal group has its unique identity markers. This multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious region of India has also been recognized by the Indian state so much so that the 73rd and 74th amendment’s implementation of the Panchayati Raj institution have not been uniform. Instead to tackle the complex issue of aspiration of tribal communities, the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution was introduced to safeguard the rights of the tribal population 2.

Origins of Insurgency

The British non-involvement with North-Eastern India (NEI) also became a catalyst for much of India's post-independence worries with the region. Firstly, the British policy towards NEI was of isolation and disconnect with mainland India1. British interference in the region came as early as 1818 in response to Ahom king’s request for assistance against the invasions from Burma. After the First Anglo-Burmese War, the territory was awarded to the British but the multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic region of NEI was largely untouched during the British raj. Due to British non-interference, the task of nation formation and integration of the region to independent India became harder. Providing the historicity of the region and newly independent India’s aspirations to unite the regions, state interference was viewed negatively and incompatible with regional aspirations, causing resentment in the region.

Other than the trans-national implications of traditional security concerns for India, the insurgency also creates a boulder to economic growth and development, causing a domino effect of negative development3. Insurgency creates an environment of political and economic dysfunction and decline that produces stagnancy that further promotes the negative development eventually creating a cycle of despondency.

Due to the isolation and neglect during the British period, NEI has fared behind that of the rest of India. The lack of development in the region combined with economic underdevelopment has fuelled feelings of resentment and insecurity. Many from NEI migrate to North India or “mainland” India to seek employment opportunities. Migration heavily influences the socio-political and economic lives of the people, the chasm between that of “mainland” and NEI, along with the feeling of living as exceptional citizens can also shape ideas and serve alienation4. The constant in-flow of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has also created fissures in local communities and accelerated the feelings of erosion of culture and identity among local communities. A demographic change, specifically in a region as ethnically diverse as that of NEI, can set off a sense of alienation. This has been the case in Assam, where illegal immigrants had become the crux of an uprising. In 1979, the Mangaldoi voting list showed a large number of non-citizens, as many as 45,000 names of illegal immigrants5. The Assam Movement led by AASU and AAGSP started almost a decade long confrontation between the government of India and proponents of the movement led to mutual suspicions. A demographic change with the influx of illegal immigrants not only disturbed the cultural identity of the region but also led to a foreboding sense of loss of representation as well, furthering the perturbation of isolation and exploitation.

The insurgency also creates instability for foreign actors to utilise for their strategic goals, countries such as Myanmar, China and Bangladesh have proven to be safe havens for NEI insurgents. China’s assistance to the Naga and Manipur insurgent groups dates back to 19716. An attack by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim in October of 2020 was alleged to have shown links to Beijing, in retaliation to the prospect of the signing of a trade pact with Taiwan7. One of the well-known insurgent leaders from the group United Liberation Front of Assom (ULFA), Paresh Barua is alleged to be living near the Myanmar-China border8. Unmarked weapons from China have also found their way to Bangladesh that has aided the insurgency. Arms smuggling, hence is an important issue to confront for India, with the porous borders on the North East region with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, these have become easy routes for increased arms smuggling9. Moreover, India’s complex border with Bangladesh also poses questions on how to effectively manage the situation. In a situation where antagonistic actors are exploiting the unstable environment, it becomes even more pertinent to solve border issues and focus on border management.

Development and growth: A renewed attempt

But all is not lost in despondency for the NEI, there has been increased attention and focus on development in the region. NEI finds even more strategic importance for India’s foreign policy in recent times. After the end of the Cold War and the rise of new global and regional powers, India’s attempts for closer strategic relations with South-East countries led to the development of India’s Look East policy. But after a lack of momentum and impetus, renewed interest in 2014 upgraded the policy to “Act East '' that emphasized greater attention to the NEI region. The cumulative efforts to develop the region gave rise to the Development of North Eastern Region or (DoNER).

Under the DoNER, established in 2001, the socio-economic development of NEI became a focal point. These development projects of the 8 states included connectivity projects such as roads, highways, railway projects as well as airport development. The objective of DoNER was to remove the physical impediments that acted as a hurdle for connectivity between mainland India and NEI1. Development of NEI is also imperative for India’s Act East policy that seeks greater cooperation with ASEAN countries and one of the biggest projects under the Act East policy is that of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway which also seeks to extend to Laos and Vietnam. Such a project of international cooperation further highlights the importance of stability and socio-economic development in NEI.

The situation in NEI also has seen the rise of civil society groups that have been critical of the insurgent groups. Civil societies play a significant role in the recent developments of NEI, groups such as Naga Mothers Association (NMA) and Mothers Union of Meghalaya have proven to be a positive force that has allowed for considerable public support towards peaceful resolution rather than the military operations of insurgent groups10. These civil societies represent the voice of the public that have faced the brunt of violence from insurgent groups or no longer find the insurgent group’s modus operandi as viable or sustainable. India can benefit from closer ties and cooperation with civil societies that align more towards peaceful resolutions rather than violent and revolutionary acts. Insurgent groups thrive on public support for revolutionary acts but when faced with the public onslaught, such as in the case of Ao Nagas demonstrations against insurgent militancy in 2004, insurgent groups are limited in garnering local support10.

1. Holistic approach to insurgency

For the NEI to develop and attain political stability, India must take a multi-pronged strategy that involves holistic development as well as reducing militancy in the region. Alienation and forced integration can push the region further into violence and that is why the DoNER is important to approach the issue of insurgency. Development and increasing basic minimum services are positive aids that can provide opportunities for the reconstruction of the social fabric. Increasing employment opportunities, health care services and air connectivity are prerequisites to avoid huge brain-drain from the region to mainland India. Curbing brain drain can invigorate youth to engage and revitalize the economy, furthering the scope of development. The stepping stones of such projects and initiatives had already begun since the inception of Act East policy in 2014 under the Modi government but were furthered in the recent 2021-2022 budget that allocated Rs 68 crores towards developmental projects11. Educational institutions are also a priority, sharing borders with Bangladesh that has seen an increase of Islamic militancy since 2016, education programs serve as the foundation for the development of socio-economic measures.

2. Border management and stability

Political stability to ensure the implementation of the policy remains India’s concern due to border management, India’s internal security has to be ensured through proper border management. Given the porousness of the borders in the region with Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, the demand for infrastructure development in the region has become stronger. The porous borders allow for many illegal activities such as gold and arms smuggling and being close to the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, known for its highly lucrative opium hub, creates more opportunities for insurgent groups to utilise the underbelly of illegal trade to finance militant operations. While national-level measures have been consistent in dealing with newer challenges to border management, India has also taken up the issue of arms smuggling at regional platforms such as ASEAN8. Regional cooperation is vital to stop the cross-border movement.

Multi-pronged strategies also involve ensuring that India’s military operations remain constant in the region, as socio-economic development is a long term investment in the growth of the region, military operations against insurgent groups are important to bring about stability in the region for continued growth12. Military cooperation with neighbouring countries can also be fruitful for anti-insurgency tactics. Joint operations and training can bolster relations and war against terrorism. Terrorism is an even more pertinent issue for South-East Asia, Bangladesh since 2016 has seen an exponential increase in terrorist attacks under the banner of ISIL13. Cooperation and joint training in this scenario can serve the interests of each, specifically when terrorism becomes a cross-border issue.


NEI is a vital region for India, besides the strategic importance of the region, it is also a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious area that resounds with India’s core values of diversity. Since independence, India has been involved in several peace processes with recalcitrant insurgent groups. While some have been successfully normalized, the issue of insurgency continues to brew in the region. India’s strategy towards the NEI has evolved through the years and now increasingly, socio-economic development has taken importance. In the era of development and technological advancement, eliminating insurgency has become complex but with a multi-pronged approach, India can placate concerns and anxieties of the region and consolidate the vestiges of insurgencies. The successful implementation of India’s Act East policy can create scope for economic development, private investments and provide the basic amenities to the citizens, creating opportunities for comprehensive development.


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About the Author:

Lakshmi Priya Panicker is a recent graduate from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts with a major in International Relations and a minor in Political Science and Public policy. Her area of interest is in Eurasian studies and peace and conflict studies.


The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the Organisation.

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